Color Me Crazy – The Best and Worst Paint Names

September 30, 2006

1970 Plum Crazy Charger R/T

Consumers could buy 1970 model year Mopars painted in some pretty funny
High Impact colors, such as this “Plum Crazy” Dodge Charger R/T.

fourwheeldriftThe year was 1969.  Somewhere, somehow in planning for the 1970 model year cars, the automotive industry got a sense of humor.  This resulted in the best car paint color names of all time.

Chrysler Corp was first out of the gate with its High Impact colors for models such as the Charger, Challenger, ‘Cuda, and Road Runner.  Ford was right behind with its list of optional paint for such masterpieces as the then all-new Maverick.  Although the actual paint shades were nothing too remarkable, the names might have been the most creative things ever to come out of Michigan.

For instance, 1970 Dodge High Impact Colors included:


Green Go

Go Mango


Panther Pink

Plum Crazy

Hemi Orange

Plymouth got mostly the same colors with different names:


Sassy Grass Green

Vitamin “C”

Lemon Twist

Moulin Rouge

In Violet

Tor Red

As cute as Mopar’s High Impact Colors were, Ford one-upped them on names for its 1970 poly-paint colors:

Original Cinnamon

Bring ‘Em Back Olive

Three Putt Green

Anti-Establish Mint

Last Stand Custard

There She Blue

Young Turquoise

Hulla Blue

Good Clean Fawn

Counter Revolutionary Red

Knight White

Freudian Gilt

History Onyx

Paint Names You’ll Never See:

With these great paint names in mind, the staff here at The Four Wheel Drift has dreamed-up the worst paint names that could ever be printed in a brochure or on a window sticker…


Yellow Snow

Blue Balls

Gang Green

Golden Showers

Gray Matter

Salmon Nilla

P.U. Ter

Packer Fudge

Tan Line

In the Buff

Beef Tungsten

Once You Go Black

Popper Cherry Red

Purple Nurpel

Lapis Dance

Pierced Naval Orange

High Whore Silver

Augusta National Country Club Membership White

Stinky Pinky

Almost Celibate Cardinal

Camel Topaz Two Tone

Augmented Chestnut

Copper Feel

What a Maroon

Sapphire Crotch

Red Tide


I Cannot Tell A Lilac

Sue ‘Em Vermillion

A Postscript – The Paint Color Nickname Hall of Fame:

From the files of “things we wished we thought of,” in 1970 the Chrysler Corp-supported Plymouth Superbird of Charlie Glotzbach started running NASCAR’s Gran National circuit painted in the factory color Plum Crazy. A creative journalist, however, gave the color a nickname that stuck with the media for years: “Statutory Grape.” 

What are the chances that in its all-things-retro craze, DaimlerChrysler offers the new Hemi Challenger due out next year in this shade?


Diesel’s Dirty Little Secret

September 25, 2006

fourwheeldriftAm I the only automotive journalist who is not enamored with the prediction that diesel-powered vehicle sales are about to skyrocket?  I might be, but then again, I might be the only car guy who knows diesel’s dirty little secret. 

Quite honestly, every single time I hear some self-described environmentalist talk about how great diesels are I want to hit them over the head with a binder full of conclusive studies linking diesel emissions to lots of health problems.  Manufacturers and interest groups keep talking about “clean burning diesel.”   Clean diesel is as much an oxymoron as clean sheets at the Playboy Mansion after Hef throws a party.  

Don’t get me wrong – in comparison to GM’s smelly, nasty 350 cubic inch diesel appearing in 1979 Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs, modern diesel engines by BMW, Mercedes and VW have, as Virginia Slims used to say, “come a long way, baby.”   But exactly like Virginia Slims, no matter how much the cigarette is modernized, it’s still an unhealthy product. (Speaking of which, at some point someone will need to explain to me why so many self-defined environmentalists smoke cigarettes at the same moment they’re protesting pollution caused by corporations.)

Seven dollar per gallon prices helped diesel gain popularity in Europe during the last decade. This explains why America is so bullish on the technology.  According to JD Power, the average diesel product sees a 12 mpg real-world improvement in fuel economy than its gasoline-powered counterpart.  When gas passed three-bucks per gallon, people were ready to sell body parts for better fuel economy. Additionally, Americans are conscious of the whole war for oil thing.  Americans are now dead-set on reducing dependence on foreign oil.  Most people boil it down to a simple hypothesis: diesel gets better economy, so switching to diesel vehicles should help wean from foreign oil. Finally people are very into preventing global warming.  Diesel doesn’t produce as much high-ozone layer killing emissions as gasoline, and therefore the fuel is proven to be better for preventing ozone depletion blamed for global warming. So it has become fashionable for environmentalists to conclude: better economy, less foreign oil dependence, no global warming…everyone should go diesel!   The problem is that this is all narrowly focused, half true…or entirely bogus. Diesel fans are putting their pocket books ahead of the environment in a way that greenies often accuse the Bush administration of doing.  Just like many of the Bush administration’s policies, the assumptions are not true, much of the data is ignored, and therefore the whole premise is a house of cards. 

Here’s the basic science:  According to every study done by the EPA and major universities, diesel-fueled vehicles emit higher levels of nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons than gas vehicles. Most importantly, diesels emit significantly higher levels of carbon-based fine particles (particulate matter – aka: soot) than gas engines.  It is this soot that creates the most immediate health risk to all humans, causing cardiovascular distress, as well as irritation to eyes and sinuses.  In other words, the average gas powered vehicle might be slowly causing global warming, but all diesels are major contributors in giving children around the world asthma right now.

The EPA produces a guide called the Green Vehicle Guide, which ranks vehicles on two criteria: air pollution score and greenhouse gas score.  Based on a scale of 1-to-10, where ten is the cleanest and one is the dirtiest, Volkswagen’s beloved TDI models all scored 1 on air pollution, while scoring 8 on greenhouse gasses.   Jeep’s new diesel Cherokee scored 1 on air and only 4 on greenhouse.  Mercedes diesels scored 1/7.  Many gasoline-powered vehicles from Toyota, Honda and Ford managed ratings of 9.5 or better in air pollution, while still maintaining 7 or higher on greenhouse gasses.  The Honda Insight and Toyota Prius both scored an amazing 9.5/10.

I know what you’re saying: what about Volkswagen’s new common-rail diesel?  Here is some news: it already failed to meet the NOx emissions requirements.  In other words – it still isn’t clean.

What about biodiesel?  Before you start downloading Willie Nelson’s entire works to your I-Pod, take this into consideration:  only  a small number of existing diesel-powered vehicles utilize particulate traps.  Particulate traps are essentially filters that prevent 90-percent of those little irritants from getting out the exhaust pipe.  VWs have particulate traps, yet still they score a 1 in air pollution, so imagine how dirty diesel-powered vehicles are that don’t have these fitted.Most of the vehicles being converted to biodiesel (in some cases, conversion means just filling up with biodiesel,) are older diesels with little or no on-board diagnostic systems to maintain burning efficiency.  Just get behind any car with one of those “powered by biodiesel” stickers and take a big whiff.  I love the smell of nitrogen oxide in the morning…it smells like burning french fries.

The average lifespan of a diesel vehicle is an amazing 29 years.  Unless some magic technology that cleans-up diesel emissions comes along before the predicted boom in diesel sales, we’ll be breathing in bad pollution for 30-plus more years.And this doesn’t include those Ford, Dodge and GM trucks!  In the US, those are classified as trucks, and therefore don’t even have to meet the minimum air quality standards applied to cars. 

Speaking of diesel trucks – how about noise pollution?  I drove from Olympia, WA to Sonoma, CA in a Cummins diesel-powered Dodge 2500 to pick-up a 1960 Triumph TR3.  After each leg I had an Excedrin headache.  Sure the Dodge had plenty of torque to get through the mountains with a car trailer, but no matter what the conditions were, it only could return 10 mpg.Part of the problem with diesels is that people believe too much of what car dealers are telling them.  JD Powers reported that consumers expected to pay only $2800 more for a diesel vehicle over a gas counterpart, yet get 21 mpg more in return.  In actuality, diesels run just around $1000 more, but deliver only 12 mpg additional than gas counterparts.  Furthermore, consumers also generally don’t expect diesel maintenance to cost more, which it most certainly does.

Today diesel is roughly 25 cents more expensive than gas on a per-gallon basis.  This basically means that the average driver (of around 10,000 miles per year) saves less than $300 in fuel costs.  It also means having less choice of where to fill-up, and that by the time one breaks-even on the extra cost of the diesel engine, the warranty is up and higher maintenance costs start chewing into further fuel spending benefits.

Stopping global warming and ending dependence on foreign oil are both noble goals worth fighting for.  The problems are that diesels simply trade a long-term environmental-related health danger for a very real near-term health issue, and do it for no real long-term political, economic or oil supply benefit.  All diesel, including biodiesel, use significant quantities of oil.  And even if the whole world went biodiesel, not only would foreign oil sources still be necessary, it would be years before biodiesel processing and distribution would be able to meet demand.

The last time I went-off on alternative-power vehicles (last time it was to dispel the myth that gas-electric hybrids were new…Ferdinand Porsche invented one in 1901,) I received hate mail from people accusing me of being paid-off by the oil lobby or the American manufacturers.  I’m expecting more hate mail from this.  The plain truth, though, is that alternative fuel vehicle research and development is currently worse-off than the early years of automobiles when steam and electric cars were viable and widespread.

I’ll give Audi the most kudos for trying to make the most out of diesel.  They conquered Le Mans with the R10 – the first diesel to do so.  The victory also tackles generations of perception that low-revving diesel engines are incompatible with sports and racing cars.  If any company will address the inherent emissions problems, it will be Audi. Unless consumers press for real change, Audi, as well as the other more lazy companies will have no reason to shoot high.  When it comes to future technology planning, the modern, greedy, risk-averse automakers have been using their putters from the tee on the R+D par-five. 

If pressed, automakers might find different technologies (steam, hydrogen, hydrogen-electric hybrid…) work better than current planned offerings.  Until then automakers will continue to brainwash people into ignoring the dirty, stinky realities of diesel.

What, if anything, my cars say about me

September 22, 2006

1955 Packard Patrician

My cars have ranged from classic (like this 1955 Packard Patrician)
to mundane (like a 1977 Buick Le Sabre.)





My computer’s screensaver is a slideshow of most of the cars I’ve owned in the last decade.  As I was watching it go through the slides yesterday, I started thinking about all the cars I’ve owned, and what it might say about me.

Evidently, I’m not partial to any one country.  I’ve owned seventeen American vehicles, seven British, three Japanese, two German, and one Italian.  The French cars I’d want to own, such as Delahaye, Bugatti, Delage, and Talbot-Lago, are all way out of my price range.  There have never been any Korean cars that have floated my boat.

I’ve had ten cars from General Motors – a Buick, an Oldsmobile and eight Chevys. Three Chrysler products have called my garage home.  Ford has contributed one Blue Oval-badged vehicle, two Mazda Miatas, a Mercury Capri, and a suicide-door Lincoln that I never got to enjoy driving outside a parking lot due to bad brakes.

A 1955 Packard was my oldest car.  A 2006 Toyota Avalon is my newest.  Overall, I’ve had three cars from the ‘50s, five from the 1960s, seven from the 70s (most from 1970-1974,) seven from the 1980s (because they are cheap – meaning good investments at this point,) six from the 90s, and two from this millennium.

The fact that I’ve owned sixteen two-seaters definitely says something about me, of course, what it says is that I can’t quite admit to myself that I have two daughters that need to be carted around.  Prior to my youngest daughter entering the world, my oldest logged many thousands of miles riding shotgun in Corvettes.  I used to pull into those baby seat check stations outside Toys ‘r’ Us from time to time and giggle as the volunteers tried to convince me that the Corvette must have a tether anchor somewhere.

Fifteen cars have been convertibles or roadsters.  Three have been targa tops (aka t-tops.)  I’ve only had two cars with sunroofs, because at 6’4”, the panels usually rob too much headroom.

My first four cars had automatic transmissions.  Even though I learned to drive a stick when I was sixteen, I didn’t own a car with a clutch pedal until I was in my late twenties. (My first manual tranny car was a 1968 Triumph TR-250.)   My wife can’t drive a stick, which explains why the last two new Corvettes I’ve bought have been six-speeds.

Overall thirteen cars have come equipped with an automatic, including two Corvettes and a Miata that were all bought used for a song.  The rest of my cars have been stick shifts. There were seven four speeds, seven five speeds, and three six speeds. I’ve never owned a three speed manual, although I’ve spent many miles rowing three-on-the-tree and standard-floor-H-patterns.  No pre-selector gearboxes either, but I can probably kill two birds with one stone by buying a good French Citroen.

The overwhelming majority of my cars have been rear wheel drive.  Four cars have been front-wheel-drive, three of which I still own – two of which are daily drivers for my wife and me.  I’ve only owned one four-wheel-drive vehicle – a Ford Expedition, also the only SUV, and by far the worst post-1980 vehicle I’ve ever owned.

Most of the cars I’ve bought have been front-engine.  I recently jumped into mid-engine vehicles with a Ferrari 328 GTS.  I also fixed-up and drove a 1970 Porsche 911T, a rear-engine car.  I still don’t understand why people have always been so scared of the 911 snap-oversteer, because I found the car easy to control during tail-out maneuvers.

On the topic of engines, I’ve owned 190 cylinders.  There have been ten four-cylinder cars (all inline – with only one mounted transversely,) five six-cylinder cars (one inline, one flat and three V6s,) and fifteen V8s.  Only two have used turbochargers – both four cylinder cars from the 1980s.

The fastest car continues to be my 2002 Corvette Convertible, which tops out at 168 mph (top up.)  This is also the car with the best gas mileage (34 mpg on the highway!)  The 1969 Corvette Convertible with a big block accelerated quicker – delivering reliable 4.60 sprints to sixty mph.   Interestingly, the fastest feeling cars have been the three Triumph TR-3s.  The slowest car was probably the Packard, although my ’77 Le Baron and ’77 Buick Le Sabre were pretty damn slow despite their V8 engines.  The biggest sleeper is the 2006 Toyota Avalon, which runs 0-60 mph in near identical time to my Ferrari at six-seconds-flat.  In its day, though, my Dodge 600ES Turbo that I’ve driven since new has embarrassed a solid number of Camaros and Mustangs.

With all the experiences I’ve had, I can honestly say that cars continue to get better, faster, more comfortable and more reliable.  Styling is always a point of contention, but modern cars are no less distinctive than in the 50s or 60s, and they’re certainly better looking than the late 1970s.

Looking back, there is only one car I’d like to have back: the 1955 Packard.  Otherwise, I’m happy with the eight cars that continue to contribute fun to my life.

The facts about overheard car show facts

September 20, 2006


If you’re going to bring your car to a show,
don’t make claims about your classic that are untrue.
(Plus it’s also nice to let your wife out of the car.)

fourwheeldriftOne of the toughest things I have to do in my life as an automotive journalist is to bite my tongue when I’m at car shows.  Collector car owners have a crazy habit of making statements about their cars that are factually inaccurate.


As the son of an attorney, I learned at a young age to stand my ground, chomp-down like a pit bull and debate points of contention using every statistic and factoid available to back-up my position.  After my first few debates, I decided that it was better to smile, nod and walk away with my image as a nice, easy-going chap.


In reality it’s just a small percentage of collectors and enthusiasts who are frequently wrong, yet never in doubt.  Most in the hobby are a wealth of accurate information. But to those who have the audacity to stand at shows and spew incorrect information about your own cars, I dedicate this top five list of the most egregious statements I’ve heard from owners about their cars on display.

5 and 4: “It’s the smallest production car ever sold in the US.”

This statement ranks in both fifth and fourth place, because I’ve heard this twice in the last two years – and neither time was the car on display the smallest.  The first offender brought a Vespa 400 to a local show – I don’t recall what year, but they were made starting in 1957.  Classifying as a “bubblecar” or “microcar,” there’s no doubt that the Vespa is shorter than an average teenager’s attention span.  But at 2835 mm (111.61 inches) nose-to-tail, it isn’t even the smallest import.  The 1957 BMW Isetta 300 was 2286 mm (90 inches,) giving it the honors of smallest import and smallest car ever sold in America.


Just this weekend, a gentleman at the Lacey Summer’s End car show told a friend of mine that Crosley, maker of his early 1940s two-door wagon (now powered by a Chevy smallblock,) produced America’s smallest car.  The smallest Crosley was the Series CD – which included the HotShot and SuperSports.  At 3683 mm (145 inches) long, it wasn’t even close to being as small as the Isetta.


For the record, the smallest American-made series production car ever was the King Midget.  Starting in 1946, the Athens, OH –based company began production of the peculiar little golf-cart-looking car.  Wheelbase was only 76.5 inches and overall length measured just 96 inches.

3. “Vespa was a French car not affiliated with Vespa scooters.”

Yes, that owner is back at number three for another crazy statement.  It is indeed true that Vespa 400 automobiles were manufactured in France by a separate legal entity, but only because the French government prohibited the Italian Vespa to operate without a French-controlled entity.  The engine was a Vespa air-cooled scooter unit (although this owner had ripped-out the original plant and shoe-horned in a Geo three-cylinder water-cooled engine.)  So his Vespa was as much a French car as a last-generation Camaro was a Canadian car.  It was only manufactured there, but otherwise it was Italian and very much related to the famous scooters.

2. “Don’t call it a ‘mini Corvette’ —  it’s an Opel GT.  It came before the Corvette.”

I was at a local car show recently when I walked up to an Opel GT with a friend and said jokingly to him “Hey, it’s a mini Corvette.”  The bionic-eared wife of the owner lashed back at me “it’s not a mini Corvette, it’s an OPEL GT.  It came before the Corvette.”



Ummm….no, my dear.  No it didn’t. 


I understand that Opel GT owners are probably sick of being compared to the Stingray, but quite honestly, the only reason most people bought Opel GTs was because it had some similar looks, but since it was based on the Opel Kadet had low enough performance to be cheap.  They weren’t bad cars, but certainly were more show than go.


These were some pretty die-hard Opel fans.  Husband and wife were wearing matching Opel GT t-shirts.


I simply explained that I knew what the car was by whispering to her that her local paper runs my classic car column each week.  (Her husband actually knew who I was.)  It took all my restraint to not pick apart her comment – which was so incorrect on all levels.


The first 1969 Opel GTs debuted in September of 1968, a full year after the 1968 model year Corvettes hit the dealers.  I bet she knew that, and was going for that whole thing about that the original Opel GT concept debuted at the Paris Auto Show in 1965.  Guess when the Stingray’s concept was unveiled?  Yup, at the 1965 Paris Auto Show!


As most Corvette fans know, Larry Shinoda’s Mako Shark II concept was the basis for most of the wild third-generation styling.  Even though the initial meetings for the Opel GT started in 1962, Bill Mitchell’s original Mako Shark, the progenitor of styling cues for Shinoda’s later Shark, appeared in 1961.   And obviously, the initial Blue Flame Six-powered Corvette first appeared in 1953.



Most importantly, neither car really can claim that any of the lines are really their own.  Much of the influence (as well as specific gimmicks like the Kamm tail) for both the GT and the Stingray came directly from Ferrari’s GTO. 

1.  “My car is an original _____”

If I had a dollar for ever single time someone billed their car as “original” or “the real deal,” I’d still be poor – but I’d have something to show for all the times I’ve been stuck wondering if the owner was trying to pull a fast one, or if they simply were unaware that the person from whom they had bought the car had pulled a fast one.


What does get me angry is when people pass off their cars as something they are not.  In the world of muscle cars it’s easy to make a low-option car into a clone of a prized low-production / high-performance model, so taking someone’s word isn’t good enough.  I think I’ve now seen more “original” SS396 Chevelles at shows than were ever produced by GM in the first place.


Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind clones.  My father-in-law decided to take the 1965 Impala SS convertible he’d owned since new and turn the original 327ci car into a big block car.  Only a seasoned Bow-Tie addict would recognize the two signs that it wasn’t a factory 396 car: an internal balancer on the engine showing it’s actually a 454 block and a VIN plate identifying its build date predates the mid-year switch from 409 to 396 engines.  Even though he never intends to sell it, he always tells people that it started life as a small block car, which is the right thing to do.


I’ve also helped people validate authenticity of their cars.  I once met an enthusiast at a show, and he asked me for help in establishing the history of his car.  He believed the vehicle to be the unique Saab Sonnet IV show car from 1973.   Problem was that nobody at Saab had ever heard of the car, and there were no records anywhere of a Sonnet IV ever being shown.   I could find only one mention of a Sonnet IV anywhere – an online advertisement from the previous owner in California from whom this fellow bought the car.  But even with that information, the owner liked what he had and was happy to tell people that the car’s true identity couldn’t be validated.


Then there’s the basis of our number one ranking on the list – the people who know there car is fake, but won’t admit or accept it.  An owner of a Hugger Orange 1969 Z-28 represented his car at many shows as a numbers-matching original Z-28. 


I had the opportunity to inspect the car while it was up on the lift at my friend’s shop, where it was in for mechanical work. My friend noticed it had a jagged hand-torched cut-out in the floor for the 4-speed shifter.  On the frame was a bracket for a column-shift automatic. Although it accelerated like a Z, turned and stopped like a Z, looked like a Z, had a correct Z VIN, and basically for all intensive purposes was a real Z, in the eyes of the collector community it was a clone.  Most likely the car had at one time been wrecked, and all the parts and ID plates swapped to another body.


Even after the findings were made clear to the owner, he belligerently maintained his position that the car was all original parts and real.  Either he had been duped into paying $20,000 too much for the car, or wanted to ensure he could sell it for a premium somewhere down the road. 


No doubt that Carma (that’s Karma for car enthusiasts) will eventually give him a good solid slap in the face somewhere down the line.

The Top 25 Most Beautiful Cars Debate

September 16, 2006

Duesenberg J Murphy

Automobile Magazine can say with a straight-face that a Studebaker Starliner
is more beautiful than a Duesenberg J Roadster bodied by Murphy?


fourwheeldriftI was reading through Automobile magazine’s September cover story again last night while in “the reading room.”  Titled “The 25 most beautiful cars of all time,” it was an interesting look at not only the obvious automotive icons, but also the best and worst styling trends.

Seeing that I can’t even agree with myself 100-percent of the time, it won’t come as a surprise that I found the list to have its faults.  I will give the team at Automobile credit, though, as it wasn’t just another list of all the same information as a zillion others of slow news day past.

Some selections were no-brainers…or at least were not going to offend anyone.  This list included Bugatti Type 57S Atlantic, Jaguar XK120, Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, Jaguar E-Type, Cisitalia 202 Coupe,  Alfa Romeo 8C 2900, Bentley Continental S1, Talbot-Lago Figoni et Falaschi coupe, Lamborghini Miura, and Mercedes Benz 500/540K Special Roadster.  I’ve seen each of these cars up close and inspected their lines. They continue to look amazing from any angle.  Most importantly, these cars have turned heads and have made enthusiasts weak in the knees throughout their entire lives.

Then there are some entries in the list that I think are beautiful, but maybe not quite enough to justify placing in the top 25.  This group includes:

  • Maserati Ghibli – As gorgeous a vehicle when it debuted in 1967 as it was at the end of production in 1973.  Wide and flat, it looked like a Ferrari Daytona’s kid brother.  The issue is that the Ghibli has never even been considered the prettiest Maserati.  In my mind the 3500GT or AG6 Zagato both place higher in terms of overall beauty. Both (along with the Mistral Spyder)  are considered more iconic among Maser faithful.


  • Buick Riviera – At least Automobile chose the 1963-1965 first generation, rather than the bloated boat-tail from a decade later.  The Riv might be one of GM’s prettiest post-war coupes.  I personally have always loved the clean, sporty lines and luxurious look. But given the overall value of Rivieras (stuck in the $10,000 range,) this means that it is not beautiful enough to be coveted…as a result it would be hard to include on the list.  Part of the value issue is that nobody other than Conway Twitty and your neighbor’s rich uncle actually owned one, so it’s one of those cases of “it’s hard to be nostalgic about something you never saw in the first place.”  Beyond this, there just are many other wonderful designs out there that rate higher — including Buick’s own 1953 Skylark Convertible.


  • Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona and Ferrari 275 GTB/4 – I’ve honestly never thought the Daytona was that pretty. (Wait for curses, boos and other jeers to silence…)  Part of its allure was that amazing performance.  Again, the Daytona wasn’t that unique looking – the Maser looked just like it.  As for the 275 GTB/4 — it was striking – like a scantily clad runway model, but it was overlooked in the lineup until values of the Daytona peaked.  Just like the Maserati, neither of these cars have really ever been considered the best-looking ponies even in their own stable.  I challenge anyone to say the Daytona is more beautiful than a 250 GT Spider California…or that the 275 GTB/4 is more amazing than a 250GT Short Wheelbase Berlinetta.  Keep in mind that none of these would find themselves unloved in my garage, but this list is about choosing the best of the best.

·        Lincoln Continental MKI (’40-’41) and MK III 1961 – There is absolutely no doubt that both the original Continental MKI and suicide-door 1961 model are important designs.  The original Continental was built to Edsel Ford’s European-inspired specifications as one-off vehicle that he could drive while vacationing in Florida. This prototype was so widely loved by Ford’s country club buddies that he decided to put it into series production.   It was voted as one of the prettiest cars of the century back in the 1950s.


Even though I’ve logged quite a few miles in a 1948 MKI Cabriolet Convertible (with its slightly heavier grill treatment,) I’ve never really found the car to be that beautiful.  Basically, here’s the problem: unless you remember a time when running boards were the standard, the MKI doesn’t seem groundbreaking as it does to the 70-and-older set. To non-farsighted eyes, the MKI can even look a bit dumpy.

As for the ’61, it is a mean-looking, luxurious ride.  Most, however, seem to like the slight facelift of the ’64 better.  I would love a black ’64 convertible with its Remington Microscreen front grill.  Few cars are as instantly identifiable, yet so understated.


But both the MKI and MKIII fall behind the glorious 1956-57 MKII.  At $10,000 they were the most expensive American cars you could buy.  Totally handmade, the MKII has always been as timeless as a tuxedo with a black tie.  It never drove as well as it looked, but most Hollywood hotties aren’t Harvard grads, either.


·        Chevrolet Sting Ray 1963 – Anytime I see Sting Rays show up on a beauty list, I always look at the years selected.  It figures that again it’s just 1963, which means everyone is stuck on that split window.  Well, here’s a news flash – if you take off the split window bar and the hood vents, you have a 1964, which is the least desirable of the mid-year Vette stable.  The most desirable is the 1967.  So, how do we reconcile all this?


Since almost nobody gives a crap about the hood vents, we’re talking about the image value of that split window.  Zora Arkus Duntov hated that stupid thing so much, he made Bill Mitchell take it off for ’64.  People like the vertical shark vents for ’65-’67, plus that great “stinger hood” offered on ’67 big block cars (plus a handful of small block cars got one when normal hoods weren’t ready in time.)


Are the Sting Rays really more beautiful than the 1958-1960 cars?  My tastes go towards the solid axle Vettes, but I also quite enjoy the Sting Rays.  Let’s just say that the 1963-1967 cars are deserving of the top 25, but it certainly isn’t one that’s cut and dry.


·        BMW 3.0CS 1971-75 –  Automobile went out on a limb on this one.  I commend them for their knowledge and taste.  The 3.0CS is as elegant as it gets for a Nixon-era closed coupe.  I just about walked into traffic staring at one entering The Empress hotel in Victoria this summer.  The 3.0CS (plus the CSi and CSL) looks so damn classy, yet nimble and sporty.  Just one problem – if Automobile didn’t make room for the 507 roadster, the 3.0CS is then just the place-holder for the better Bimmer. 


507 has all the 3.0’s elegance, plus one can literally get lost in all the amazing design details.  The wheels, the steering wheel, the dash, the gauges – they all work together or on their own.


·        Cord 810/812 – Again, we’re talking about a landmark car design here.  I’m probably the only one in the world that might question it, except that I don’t honestly feel the look has aged as beautifully as everyone says it has.


It was the first car with hideaway headlights.  The coffin nose looked mean.  The turned aluminum dash was mind-boggling – and those headlight actuating knobs look like jewelry.  There were no running boards (years ahead of the Continental.) In roadster form it was sporty as American cars got.  My issue is that the car wasn’t as beautiful as the L-29 it replaced — which was one of the lowest American cars of its day, due to the front-wheel-drive arrangement.  Also 810/812 sedans looked downright awkward with the square nose and bulbous passenger compartment.


·        Lotus Elite 1957-63 – A gorgeous car that only impresses a spectator more when they learn it’s fiberglass without a steel chassis of any type.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with including it, except that the Lotus Eleven has always been considered prettier by Lotus fans.  The problem arrives in the definition of the list.  The Elite was a road car that was intended to be raced on the weekends.  The Eleven was a race car that was street legal only to classify for production racing status.


Come to think of it…if we’re allowed to have production racers on the list, I’ll remove the XK120 and throw in the Jaguar D-Type/XKSS racers of the same era!  Toss me a Ford GT40 and a Porsche 906 (or 908) as well.


Now we get to that part of the list where I wonder what the hell were the writers at Automobile smoking?  They have included a list of cars that simply don’t add up.


·        Oldsmobile Toronado 1966-67 – What a monster.  Sure, it was a little cool and still looks crazy today…but “beautiful?”  I don’t think so.  There car looked too damn heavy.  There are probably more people who think the 1958 Thunderbird “square bird” is deserving of the Top 25 than the ‘Nado — which is to say that there must have been a senior editor at Automobile who threatened to fire anyone who didn’t include the Olds.


·        Nissan 300ZX 1990-96 – The only way I can explain this is that there are some younger staffers here that wanted one modern import on the list.  C’mon, though, the 300Z?  They were, and continue to be, handsome cars – assuming it wasn’t a 2+2 model with the stretched wheelbase.  Handsome ain’t enough to make the list of 25.  Heck, the 1993-1995 RX7 is universally praised as a much prettier design, but I guess it must have been docked points for the smoke cloud that always accompanies the exhaust system tied to the rotary engine.


·        Studebaker Starliner 1953-54 – There’s one pushy Studie fan in every crowd.  Yes, I know it was a slippery shape.  I know they went like stink through a Grateful Dead tribute concert.  Nobody…and I mean nobody, will convince me a Starliner was, is or ever will be one of the Top 25 most beautiful cars.  If anyone challenges me, I’ll come up with 500 prettier cars.


And I’m sorry Studie-friends, but I’ve never liked the polarizing looks of the Avanti either.  I think Avantis are great driving cars and appreciate them for what they were (and continue to be 40+ years later,) but I’ve always found them visually baffling.  To get a really impressive-looking Studebaker, I go back to the 1929ish President, which had a number of wonderfully styled bodies.


·        Cadillac 60 Special 1938-1941 – I’ve spent many an hour discussing the 60 Special with my father, who appreciates its place on the list.  Like the Continental MKI, the 60 Special is a generational thing.  It looks like every other 40’s car to anyone not old enough to remember the 1930s.  Credit goes to Bill Mitchell for creating a truly fresh design that was impressive in its day.  It just carries nowhere near the requisite wow factor for making the list.  Not to take anything away from the 60 Special, as it is still one of the best touring cars for Classic Car Club of America, being comfortable, reliable and easy to drive.


·        Jaguar XJ6 1968-1979 – Just because the styling of the XJ6 is still the basis for modern Jaguars isn’t enough for making the list.  Actually, it’s more of an indictment of the meager minds running Jaguar these days, and a good indication why the company has been a money-pit for Ford since the buyout.  Again, this is a case of a nice looking car not even close to being the cutest kitten of the litter.  Give me that D-Type/XKSS entry I asked about previously…or how about that little pre-war gem the SS100 sports roadster?


So what do I feel are flagrant omissions from the list?

There simply isn’t enough emphasis put on the gorgeous iron put out in the Classic Era by custom coachbuilders.  I agree that the Talbot-Lago deserves a position, as does Figoni et Falaschi’s other work with Delahaye and Delage.  In terms of American cars, I can’t fathom that not a single Duesenberg, Packard, Cadillac, Chrysler Imperial or other top-line manufacturer with Murphy or Le Baron coachwork was included.  Instead of trying to pick a favorite, since the cars were made-to-order, I’ll simply say “1932 open cars (roadsters, convertibles and phaetons) from Murphy and Le Baron.”  This way, we get the Duesenberg J, the Imperial CL, Packard V12, and Caddy V16 – all of which were offered with bodies of similar design — meaning timeless beauty.

How about the Ferrari 308GTB or 246GT Dino?  Both are considered among Pininfarina’s best work, with every angle offering a perfect perspective.  As entry-level Ferraris, their values are well above many V12 models due to widespread appeal.  The icing on the cake is that both cars are as wonderful to drive as to look at!

AC Cobra?  The Cobra’s appeal isn’t just in its performance.  It also happens to be one of the best sports roadster designs ever.  It still looks so fantastic that forty years later it remains the most widely copied car in history.  I’d even argue that the small number of Cobra Daytona Coupes also could make a case for deserving their own position.

Finally – there’s the AMC Pacer…nah, just kidding

BMW’s New 7 Series Model Hopes to Replace Hindenburg as Zenith of German-Made Hydrogen-Powered Transportation

September 14, 2006

BMW Hydrogen 7

 The BMW Hydrogen 7 will be the world’s first hydrogen-powered production vehicle (Photo courtesy of BMW)

fourwheeldriftBMW just announced that it will be the first major automobile manufacturer in the world to release a hydrogen-powered car with its new Hydrogen 7.  This is a serious step towards eventually replacing Toyota as the alternative power kings of the industry. 

Okay, I’m thinking it too.  BMW Hydrogen 7 is German.  The Hindenburg was German.  This whole thing is as likely to succeed as a lead balloon… 

…or maybe successful as Led Zeppelin? 

I must admit that there are some serious roadblocks to BMW’s attempt to make hydrogen a standard, but before I start launching doubts,. I’ll give kudos for how BMW has gone about this. The Hydrogen 7 is basically a standard twelve cylinder 760i, which makes it comfortable, luxurious and a great handling large sedan. (Heck, it’s nicer overall than most people’s houses.)  Instead of ripping out the gasoline guts, BMW chose to take the approach of enabling the engine to run on either hydrogen or gasoline.  There are two tanks – one for each fuel.  The driver simply selects which combustable to use by pressing a single button on the steering wheel.  (Did it really have to be on the steering wheel where you can bump it accidentally?  I guess I shouldn’t complain, since BMW probably considered making it accessible only by burying it ten menus down in I-Drive.) 

The car can go 125 miles on a tank of hydrogen, plus another 300 on gas.  So as electric car manufacturers say: “range is not an issue.”  The only difference is that with BMW, it really is true.  When running on hydrogen, the only emission via the tailpipe is water, which is wonderful… unless, of course, you live in New Orleans. So far, the only downside that seems to exist between the Hydrogen 7 and a standard 7 is performance.  The extra weight turns the usual rocket-like acceleration into evolution-like.  Zero to 62 mph comes in 9.5 seconds.  Top speed is limited to 143 mph instead of the usual 155 mph.  Certainly this is not a deal-killer, especially since most environmentally minded people aren’t concerned with frivolous concepts such as blowing the doors off Mustangs and Camaros. 

Now comes the time for me to question BMW’s strategy for making hydrogen a standard… There are three things that stand in the way of hydrogen gaining mass acceptance: perception, availability and cost.  Perception has a tremendous hurdle to jump with the whole Hindenburg thing.  Hydrogen is linked with a big explosion, and it doesn’t matter how often you remind Joe Sixpack that gas also goes boom when you place it next to a spark, the nervousness will continue to haunt consumers’ minds.    Then there’s the issue of availability. Distribution is a huge issue, requiring political clout and money to open a network of providers.  It has yet to be seen if a German company can affectively beat out the power of the oil lobby to make hydrogen available in enough outlets to make owning a hydrogen-powered vehicle a reasonable play. And unlike corn-based ethanol, there’s enough hydrogen power to support a hydrogen-powered national fleet of cars. (We’d run out of corn in six months or less if all cars ran on E-85 ethanol blend.)  It’s just a question of getting the hydrogen processed and delivered.  Of course, it makes one wonder why GM and Ford have been so bullish on ethanol.  

Finally, there’s cost.  We have no idea how much it will cost per mile to run a car on hydrogen power. (One doesn’t really say “miles per gallon” since hydrogen is measured by pound.)  If it costs more to buy and run on hydrogen than gas, everyone other than true tree-huggers will stay on gas.  Associated with the cost of the fuel is the cost of the vehicle, and this is where I question BMW’s plan of attack.  The Hydrogen 7 will likely be a $100,000-plus vehicle when it hits the US.  I know what they’re thinking: prove that a hydrogen-powered luxury car can make it, and then every rich wanna-be will want one too.  I can’t argue this from an image perspective, but I can take the debate stance that without a critical mass of users, it will be near impossible to create a successful distribution network.  With the sales popularity of the 3-series, the hydrogen Bimmer has a better shot for the big time.  Using the 7 makes the car akin to the first-gen Prius – more an image car for quirky people, rather than a true alternative for the masses. It’s just that instead of hippies-turned suburbanites, it will be ultra-wealthy, socially-conscious L.A. actors and producers.

But I congratulate BMW for taking a risky move.  They’ve sunk a whole hell of a lot of R+D money into this.  Maybe, just maybe, this concept will prove a success, and we’ll see the 5 and 3 Series with hydrogen power soon, too.  If that happens, the whole automotive landscape could look very interesting in the future.

The Incomplete Guide to Buying a Car for Your Teen

September 13, 2006

Hummer H2
Do you really want to buy a vehicle for your teen that makes them overconfident about their driving abilities?


fourwheeldriftI get called for advice whenever a friend (or a friend of a friend) needs to buy a car for their high school-aged child.  Buying a car for a teenager is a big decision made more difficult by pressures to balance safety, reliability and coolness.

First and foremost, I’m of the belief that no teenager deserves a cool car.  A person’s first car sets how they view and treat the privilage of owning and driving an automobile.  Giving a teen an expensive new car or cool used car can seriously skew their view of the value of basic transportation, as well as mask their understanding of how hard most people have to work to afford a car. 

Most importantly, a nice car does not communicate that as a teen, there is a lot to learn about how to drive safely.  You wouldn’t buy a beginning guitarist a Les Paul, a first-time golfer a set of Ping clubs or a Bar Mitzvah boy an Armani suit, so a recently licensed driver doesn’t need a BMW. 

When I was a lad my first car was a red (with rust and oxidation) 1977 Buick Le Sabre with red vinyl seats and a radio that would cut in and out with the turn signal.  The Buick left me stranded at least five or six times in the first year, so my uncle donated his 1977 Chrysler LeBaron to me.  In a vain attempt to make it less geeky, I had the light-tan exterior painted evening blue by Earl Scheib,because with the tan leather interior it matched the colors of a Ferrari 308 GTS I had seen on television. 

That Chrysler left me stranded multiple times, as well.   I even had to call in an emergency ride from my cousin to drive me to my last day of high school after it failed to start. 

Consequently, I have appreciated every car I’ve owned. I’ve always been a careful driver — with no accidents or violations on my record.  By the time I purchased my first sports car, I was able to resist opening it up on public streets.  On the track I was responsible enough to keep the it within the limits set by the car and my skills.

In contrast, my wife’s parents bought her a brand new Camaro for her sixteenth birthday, because they felt her 4.0 GPA somehow made her deserving of a new car.  She bonked it into the garage twice in six months, so they took it away, replacing it with a brand new Ford Bronco.  She called the punishment “asinine” and complained bitterly that her parents were unreasonable.

To this day, my wife treats her car like someone else will soon replace it, whereas even before I was an automotive journalist, I handled cars (especially the reliable ones) with care and respect.  Of course, these are just two data points, rather than a statistical survey. (And I will be sleeping on the couch tonight.)

In all honesty, parents often find themselves in a situation where they project their own needs into the vehicles they purchase for their teens.  Teens do not need expensive, luxurious, high performance vehicles.  They need safe, reliable transportation that will reinforce good driving habits, as well as teach the importance of proper vehicle maintenance.

When looking for a specific car the only factors parents should consider are:


Buy something safe, period.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety maintains data indicating crashworthiness.  Spend less time looking at the ratings based on static tests – the annual driver’s death rates studies and injury, accident and theft loss reports are the absolute best for identifying the safest cars. I also suggest looking at multiple years’ worth of reports to identify the occasional anomaly.   Sometimes cool cars are safe, but not usually.  Would you really rather have a cool dead child than a living one in a not-so-cool car?

The safest vehicles are large four-door sedans with side-impact airbags and vehicle stability control (aka VDS, yaw control, Active Handling, Stability Management.)  No matter what you’ve read, heard or believe, SUVs and pickup trucks are not safe.  Teens are more likely to be involved in single-vehicle accidents where speed is a factor.  SUVs are more likely to be involved in single-vehicle accidents where speed is a factor.  Don’t make the mistake of putting a teen behind the wheel of a SUV or pickup that handles worse than a sedan, takes longer to stop, is more likely roll in an accident, and more likely to kill occupants wearing seatbelts. Heck, even if you put a good driver in a SUV, they still battle Miata-sized blind spots. 

Teens feel overconfident in SUVs and pickups, causing their egos write checks that their driving abilities and physics can’t cash.

Furthermore, the more seats in a vehicle, the more likely it is that the child will be put in situations where the car is dangerously overloaded.  A Honda Pilot or Ford Explorer can seat seven, but maximum weight isn’t much more than five average weight occupants with some extra bags.  Since the Pilot and Explorer are nearly identical in length to an Accord, third row occupants essentially sit in the area reserved for the trunk in the Accord, meaning in a rear impact, the force either crumples the seating area or is transferred throughout the entire body. (That’s just basic physics!) 

Small SUVs, like sports cars, are generally about as safe as Russian roulette with six bullets. No teen should be put behind the wheel of a car that will roll during an emergency lane change, nor should they be given the keys to a sports car capable of tripling the legal speed limit on county roads.

Reliability / Running Costs

Check JD Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study for how certain types of vehicles hold up.  Buying a car requires that one understands the total cost of ownership – which means the cost of initial purchase + insurance + fuel + upkeep.  An old Range Rover can be cheap to buy but insane to repair, as are Volkswagens, Volvos, Saabs, BMWs, Audis and Mercedes.  Parts prices can vary wildly, and even duplicating an ignition key can cost anywhere from three dollars to $350.

Expected Usage

How will the car be used and for how long?  If the car just needs to last through a couple years of high school and then be thrown away when the child attends college, this opens up opportunities to buy well maintained high mileage cars.  If the car needs to last many years, a lower mileage vehicle makes more sense.  Also, if the driver won’t be going skiing or battling frequent winter snow, there’s absolutely no reason to buy something with four or all-wheel drive.

No matter what vehicle you consider, you should request service receipts and have the vehicle inspected by a reputable mechanic.  Even if the car has been maintained, regular service items like timing belts, shocks/struts, brakes all need to be addressed at some point, so ensure you are not paying top dollar for a vehicle that will soon need major scheduled maintenance.

With that all said, here are my top picks for teen drivers:

Honda Accord and Toyota Camry sedans — Here are two cars that are safe, reliable and won’t get your teen in trouble with the fashion police.  They are well-designed, comfortable, easy to work on and offer cheap replacement parts.  If you can afford it, buy one with side impact air bags.

Accords and Camrys can go 300,000 miles, so don’t let mileage scare you.  More important is to see the service history to ensure that the car has been well maintained.  Six cylinder cars are quite peppy and still get great MPG.  Four cylinder cars are the best for younger drivers with heavy accelerator feet.

Subaru Wagons – Instead of buying an SUV, grab one of Subaru’s many wagons.  Over the years, I’ve been impressed by Subaru’s ability to create cars that simply keep running.  Since they tend to be heavy, and the engines aren’t that powerful, it results in cars that won’t get kids in too much trouble.  (Just stay away from the WRX!)  All wheel drive means awesome wet and snow traction, but low centers of gravity give better handling and security than traditional SUVs.

I’ve had one friend walk away from a roll-over in a Subaru.  Another four friends of mine were absolutely unscathed when the Subie they were in veered into a raspberry field and crashed through a series of vertically positioned railroad ties.

Sure Subies will creak and rattle like an antique house with wooden floors, but they’ll battle-on for years after Explorers, Expeditions, Tahoes and Durangos have all bitten the dust.  They are easy to fix, and parts are very reasonable.

Big BuicksThey’re not the most reliable, cool or impressive, but the resale values of the Park Avenue and Le Sabre are so low that you can buy a slightly used one for a song.  (This makes it worth all the complaining your teen will do when you bring home a Buick.) Parts prices are cheap.  The cars are a breeze to work on.  There are some inherent build issues, like plastic intake manifolds that are prone to leaking on the 3800 V6 engines, plastic interior parts that break and brake calipers that seem to require resurfacing every 15,000 miles, but these cars are still better built than Chevys and Fords…plus safer than any Volvo.  Throw a set of snow tires on these front-wheel-drive beasts and their spacious trunks make for perfect transportation up to the ski hill.

As for cars to specifically avoid — here are my top ten worst cars to buy for a teen.

10- Dodge/Plymouth Neon:  I’ll admit that they are very fun to drive, are easy to park and are not bad looking in comparison to other econoboxes, but Neons are so horribly built that owners usually carry monthly bus passes as backup.


9-Volkswagen Jetta: For the same reasons as the Neon, but with parts costs that make owners think they’ve bought a Porsche.


8-Acura Integra: A great car — so great that probabilities state that your teen will likely find it missing from the parking lot.  It’ll be found as a shell only, with all the parts already headed to unscrupulous parts dealers.


7-Anything from Scion:  I’ll admit that the jury is still out on Scion, but for some reason, all the models are near the bottom of the heap in their respective class for safety.  This could be a demographics thing — meaning that the type of people that buy Scions are high risk drivers. It could be, however, that the cars are poorly designed for accident situations.


6- VW Vans: To quote Car Talk’s Click and Clack: “those things are deathtraps.”  They are too slow to merge safely on a highway, too top heavy for evasive moves, and crush like a soda can in a wreck.  They also cost a fortune to maintain.  Plus, do your really want your teen to have a bed in the back of their vehicle?


5- Classic Cars: I like old cars and have logged several thousand miles in old pony, muscle and sports cars over the last decade, but 30-plus year old cars are not reliable or safe enough to serve as a teen’s daily transport.  Crumple zones didn’t hit the domestic-built cars until the 1980s. Old brakes are easy to lock.  Rear-wheel-drive plus high power means tail-happy dynamics in the wet.  And those old non-inertia seat belts have a terrible habit of breaking collarbones.


4- Jeep Liberty and Wrangler: Cheaply made (is there a louder, more uncomfortable ride than a Wrangler?) but more importantly, these vehicles sit too high for such a short wheelbase.  When the Liberty debuted, Autoweek magazine rolled one simply trying to measure times through a low-speed slalom.


3- Ford Explorer:  Old Explorers killed occupants who wore their seatbelts.  Newer ones try to pack seven occupants into a package the same size as an Accord — and still there are cries from watchdog groups about the SUV’s ability to handle routine safety maneuvers.


2- Suzuki Areo and Suzuki Forenza: Not only are people extremely likely to have an accident in an Aero or Forenza, they are more likely to require medical attention than in almost any other sedan.  Cheaply made, so not safe.


1- Chevy Camaro / Pontiac Firebird / Ford Mustang V8:  Why you’d ever want to give your child the keys to one of the cars that kills more teens per year (normalized for the number of registered vehicles of each type,) than any other, I’m not sure.  These cars are a case study in demographics: simply being an owner of a Camaro/Firebird or Mustang GT simply puts one in a group that tends to exhibit a lack of maturity necessary to drive one safely.  These cars seem to make kids do stupid things…heck they make adults do stupid things, and they have more sense than teens.


Have a question about a specific vehicle? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment and I’ll reply with my analysis.